The Iditarod race has two actual starts: a Ceremonial one on Saturday morning in Anchorage, and a re-start, which is the actual start of the race, on Sunday in Willow. The Ceremonial start is more relaxed than the restart. Here the mushers are quick to speak to fans, happy to pose for pictures and grant interviews with the media. Mushers park on side streets, take the dogs out of their boxes and check all of their equipment.
The Ceremonial start provides mushers with a “dry run” to make sure all will run smoothly at the real start. Also, during the Ceremonial start Mushers carry an “Iditarider,” a person who has won an auction to ride in a musher’s sled from the Ceremonial start in Anchorage for 11 miles to Campbell Air Strip.
On Saturday morning I went down to the starting line early for a dog handling meeting. Here’s a video clip of the starting area very early Saturday morning: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DPTiD23aczo
Rae, the Dog Handling coordinator for the Ceremonial start, met with the Dog Handler volunteers early. She verified our training cards and then handed out “ITC Handler” armbands. We had a brief meeting running through instructions. The mushers would go in the order of their “bib” numbers (the starting position numbers they had drawn at the banquet). The earlier mushers are parked the furthest away, and those starting at the end of the pack will be parked closest. Handlers are responsible for meeting with the musher to get specific requirements (like where to hold the dog). She asked for the strongest runners to go in the first sweep since those folks would have to run the longest distances. She chose about 10 handlers and told the rest to meet her a bit later. During each break Rae would meet with the mushers and determine how many handlers they would need. Many mushers bring their own handlers (often their sponsors serve as handlers), so many mushers do not need volunteer handlers. Rae said she was set for the time being and come back in a half hour, so I went out to take some photos of mushers.
Aliy Zirkle is always a contender – she is one of the strongest female mushers in the race:
Four time winner Lance Mackey!
After taking some pictures I went back to meet Rae and she told me and a few others to report to musher #48, Hank DeBruin. DeBruin is a rookie from Ontario, Canada. He and his family run Winterdance Dogsled Tours, which I thought was pretty neat since Gary Paulson’s book, Winterdance, has been such an inspiration for so many to get into dogsledding. We took off running towards DeBruin, and found that he was parked on a side street, waaaaay at the very end. DeBruin’s team was already hooked to the outside of his truck, and he was in the process of putting on their booties.
After the dogs were all bootied, the musher pulled his sled and gangline out front. The dogs were so excited! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cZsoau4Lnqg&feature=channel
He put on his mushing bib and started hooking the dogs to the sled. It was incredibly thrilling to be part of the action. The energy level of the dogs escalated as he continued hooking them to the gangline. I was working with Jester, a sweet husky! Finally it was time to go. The lead handler gave the signal (arm swooshing down) and we took off running down the side street. DeBruin asked us to hold directly onto the gangline (and not to the dog harnesses) so this made it a bit easier as you did not have to bend as deeply or match your gait as carefully to the dog’s.
Once we got to the beginning of the side street we turned left and trudged through the snow. It was like running in sand! Typically the snow is trucked in from outlying areas, but we heard they had plenty of snow in Anchorage this year without moving it from other areas into the city. Still, it had been treated with chemicals and it made it feel more like sand than snow. The mushers leave in two minute intervals, so when we finally made it close to the starting line we had a two minute break while the musher in front was cleared to go. Those in line advanced up a short run and so it continued until it was our turn.
By this time the dogs were yelping and barking and jumping completely off the ground. The announcer began DeBruin’s countdown, “Five, Four, Three (musher gave us the signal to step back), Two and ONE!” With that, the team took off!
It was such an experience! The excitement running through the dog team and everyone involved was just so intense. It was physically demanding (indeed I think my chest has still not recovered!) and truly the experience of a lifetime.
After DeBruin’s team left I stood for a bit to catch my breath and took some video of Rohn Buser’s departure. We met Rohn when we toured Martin Buser’s kennel and all of the Buser boys were fantastic! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Y7OeKYPE-0&feature=channel
Also in the crowd taking pictures were fan favorites Sebastian Schnuelle and Jessie Royer!
What a day! After the last musher had departed for Campbell Air Strip, I had dinner with some of the teachers from the conference. Tomorrow, Willow Lake, where the mushers and the dog teams would truly be on their way to Nome!